Atheist students are losing their faith in free speech

The University of Sheffield Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (SASH) has turned down a suggestion by a student to invite Maryam Namazie to speak at the university. The reason? Her ‘hard anti-Islamist approach’ is not ‘conducive’ to the direction that the society wishes to go in.

This isn’t a wind-up. Not only is the suggestion that you can be ‘too hard’ on Islamism baffling, but the fact that this statement came from an atheist, secularist and humanist society is almost beyond parody. To clarify, this is a society which aims to defend human rights and promote secularism declining to invite a renowned and influential ex-Muslim, secularist and human-rights campaigner. (Namazie has done extensive work supporting refugees, and has tackled both religious fundamentalism and far-right bigotry.)

In its response to the inquiring student, SASH said that it would like to concentrate on ‘interfaith’ activities instead, stating that ‘interfaith between faith societies is vital’. Apparently, inviting Namazie, which may not be welcomed by some members of Sheffield’s Islamic Society (ISoc), would be antithetical to their objectives.

I’ve always found the idea of atheist societies bizarre. After all, these are groups forged from a shared lack of belief in something. But the idea of an atheist society working its agenda and events around an Islamic society, a religious organisation, is absurd. It seems that SASH has shifted its focus to humanism rather than atheism – only here ‘humanism’ means pandering to Islamists.

SASH stated that Namazie’s recent podcast with Sam Harris demonstrated her ‘often divisive approach’. This is the podcast in which Namazie opposes Harris’ views on the profiling of Muslim immigrants and defends open borders for those fleeing persecution. Pretty divisive, huh?

SASH was particularly concerned that there would be a repeat of ‘what happened at Goldsmiths’, when Islamist students disrupted a talk being given by Namazie. But this only projects a pretty dim view of Sheffield ISoc. As a Sheffield student myself, I’d like to think that ISoc members would be up for the debate, and would not act at all like those thugs at Goldsmiths. Not all Muslims resent apostates.

What’s more, the subtext here is that Namazie was in some way to blame for the Goldsmiths incident. Though SASH insists it does not condone Goldsmiths ISoc’s actions, it is nevertheless siding with Islamists at Namazie’s expense. This is cowardly and pathetic.

This incident is yet another example of the conflation of Islamism (the ideology), Islam (the religion) and Muslims (as people). It is the belief that an attack on Islamism is somehow an attack on all Muslims – and all of Islam. This is not the case: most Muslims hate and reject all forms of Islamism. I hope SASH will realise its mistake and restore its faith in free speech.

Hallam Roffey is a writer and a student at the University of Sheffield.

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